Fictional and non-fictional television shows have introduced the public to various aspects of forensic anthropology, and many students have become interested in forensic anthropology as a result of this highly glamorized Hollywood interpretation of the field. To be a practicing forensic anthropologist you need a master’s degree or doctorate with a major in anthropology and a focus in biological, physical, or forensic anthropology, which usually takes a total of six to ten years. There are very few opportunities for persons with a bachelor’s degree to practice forensic anthropology. The majority of forensic anthropologists are employed by academic or research institutions and consult on cases when and if the need arises. Others are employed in medical examiner’s offices and the armed forces. Still others occasionally work for ad hoc tribunals and non-government organizations as part of teams investigating war crimes involving mass graves. Relatively few people practice forensic anthropology on a full-time basis.
Does this mean you should not think of becoming a forensic anthropologist? Of course not, but you should realize that while there will always be a need for forensic anthropology, the highly specialized nature of the field means that there has never been a high demand for the services of a forensic anthropologist. To be competitive, a student interested in forensic anthropology should consider obtaining a broad education in physical/biological anthropology or related fields.
The ABFA certifies individual practitioners; it does not accredit universities or educational programs. We also don’t maintain a list of all universities with forensic anthropology programs since our organization focuses on post-graduate certification rather than education. However, the following is a list of universities that have ABFA Diplomates on staff.
Boston University School of Medicine, MS in Forensic Anthropology, Boston, MA
California State University, Chico, CA
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
University of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN
Mercyhurst University, Erie, PA
Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
Texas State University – San Marcos
Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC
Frequently Asked Questions
These answers have been compiled from a variety of forensic anthropologists in several different work settings and are based on actual and typical questions submitted by students.
Most forensic anthropologists have several different tasks as part of their job description. Many are college or university faculty members and so are in a classroom about 15 hours per week, around 3-4 hours per day. They have meetings to attend, students to advise and assist, lectures to write, papers to grade, scientific research to conduct or supervise, and other tasks typical of university-level professors. When the need arises for a forensic anthropologist, they assist with forensic cases, and some may be “on call” 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, especially in their local geographic area.
Other forensic anthropologists are employed full-time at a medical examiner or coroner’s office, at museums, or by the military (i.e., the Department of Defense) or other governmental agencies. These anthropologists often have other responsibilities beyond skeletal analyses and meetings, such as supervising trainees in anthropology, archaeology, and pathology; advising on policies and procedures related to forensic anthropology and archaeology; and conducting forensic research or archaeological fieldwork; many also teach part-time at the college level.
Forensic anthropologists typically belong to national and regional forensic and anthropology organizations, such as the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the International Association for Identification, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and other national, local, and regional forensic and physical anthropology groups. They often volunteer for these organizations in leadership roles and by presenting their scientific research at meetings. Many forensic anthropologists write books and papers about their research and casework and are often invited to give public lectures about forensic anthropology.
A typical day for a forensic anthropologist largely depends upon where he or she is employed. Those who are college or university professors do not spend every day working on forensic cases. When a case presents itself, it can demand a majority of the consulting anthropologist’s time, but when that case is finished, that person resumes regular duties as a college professor. An anthropologist employed at a college or university may spend part of any day in a laboratory working on cases, in an autopsy assisting a medical examiner, or even testifying in court. These professors also often take students out to help with forensic cases so that they can get hands-on experience in forensic anthropology. The remainder of their time is spent on tasks associating with teaching and mentoring in a college or university setting.
If the forensic anthropologist works in a coroner or medical examiner’s office or for a government investigative agency (usually federal or state), then more of the average day is spent working with human remains. Some anthropologists who work for government agencies may spend part of their time searching for recent or historical remains, such as those associated with plane crashes or mass disasters, and therefore may spend days using archaeological techniques associated with site survey and excavation. Still others may work for international agencies aimed at recovering and identifying the remains of victims of genocide, so their days may be spent doing archaeological recovery work or laboratory-based analysis of human remains. If the anthropologist is employed in a museum setting, much of the day may be spent in cataloging and curating remains and working with researchers, in addition to assisting medicolegal officials. Any of these types of forensic anthropologists may be called upon to respond to mass disaster situations, such as occurred after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina; many forensic anthropologists belong to disaster and mortuary teams or organizations.
When any anthropologist is involved in a forensic case, it may entail searching for clandestine graves and exhuming the remains (and associated evidence) from that grave. Different scenes require different responses, but every case requires attention to detail when recovering and documenting evidence. Recovered remains are analyzed for identification purposes and evidence surrounding the circumstances of death. The anthropologist writes reports on the analyses conducted (including any exhumation or excavation), and if the case goes to court, the forensic anthropologist meets with attorneys to prepare for giving expert testimony in the courtroom.
The work environment, just as the responsibilities of a “typical day,” depends to some degree upon how the forensic anthropologist makes a living. Generally, laboratories are equipped with fume hoods to remove odors, large tables, microscopes, and dissection equipment. Working with human remains can be smelly; it is often not pleasant work but needs to be done. Infectious disease is also a risk when working with human remains, so forensic anthropologists frequently use personal protective clothing such as coveralls, gloves, and goggles.
Remains may come to the lab as isolated bones, complete or near-complete skeletons, decomposing bodies, or bones removed during autopsy from fleshed bodies. Sometimes remains must be cleaned of soft tissue so that they can be examined. As much flesh as possible is removed manually, and then the remains are then put into very warm water and detergent until the remaining soft tissue can be removed. Sometimes flesh-eating dermestid beetles are used to remove soft tissue. Once the remains are clean, the bones are laid out on tables so the forensic anthropologist can carefully examine and measure them. Forensic anthropologists also need office space where they can write their reports, review books and other reference materials, have phone consultations, send and receive email and other correspondence, and meet with others in a clean environment.
Forensic anthropologists who conduct exhumations or recover remains from archaeological settings may work in a variety of grueling outdoor settings, including swamps, deserts, arctic plains, and jungles. During those tasks, they may be faced with extreme weather, environmental hazards such as steep slopes and dangerous wildlife, and occasionally hazardous chemicals (e.g., when recovering remains from the scene of a house or car fire). In these cases, anthropologists may need to wear special clothing to protect them from the elements (such warm or waterproof clothing). Anthropologists engaged in this type of work may need to use a variety of specialized equipment (e.g., total stations, Global Positioning System [GPS] units, aerial survey devices, magnetometers, ground penetrating radar) to record contextual details about the site that can inform later analyses.
Some forensic anthropologists work in laboratories with several other forensic anthropologists, especially those who work with the military or in large metropolitan medical examiners’ offices, but many forensic anthropologists work alone. Many work directly with graduate and/or undergraduate students to help train them in forensic anthropology methods. Sometimes forensic anthropologists take students to an investigation or ask students to help with large-scale searches (if animal scavengers have scattered remains in a large field, for example).
Most forensic anthropologists work with fellow anthropologists on research projects and share ideas at meetings and scientific conferences. Forensic anthropologists interact frequently with other types of scientists and professionals such as forensic pathologists, forensic dentists, biomechanical engineers, death investigators, law enforcement officers, attorneys, and others. Learning about other disciplines and integrating perspectives from multiple fields help to advance forensic science.
Expert witness testimony in a case may occur years after a skeletal examination takes place, so the forensic anthropologist must thoroughly review his or her case report, photographs, and other documentation of the case in preparation for pre-trial discussions or courtroom testimony. However, the anthropologist doesn’t try to learn “everything possible” about the matter, because seeking information beyond the scope of his or her role in the case has the potential to introduce bias. Once in court, forensic anthropologists view their role as educators. Their job is to try to teach the jury and others in the court about the basic principles that explain their scientific findings. Even though an attorney is asking the questions, the anthropologist on the stand addresses his or her answers to the jury (or the judge if it is not a jury trial). The testifying anthropologist must try to give the jurors or judge enough background information—at a level that anyone can understand—so that those who make the decisions in the case can understand the anthropologist’s conclusions. The expert witness has no interest in the guilt or innocence of the accused; that is for the jury or judge to decide. Forensic anthropologists on the witness stand must maintain objectivity and do not testify to anything beyond the scientific evidence or the scope of their expertise.
Most forensic anthropologists have one or more degrees in anthropology—sometimes specifically physical or biological anthropology—which are subdisciplines of anthropology that focus on the variability of modern human and nonhuman primate skeletons, as well as ancient human remains and human and primate evolution. Based on these studies, forensic anthropologists share a passion for applying their knowledge of modern human skeletons to medicolegal questions (such as, “who is this person, and how did he or she die?”). This career allows them to make a difference by providing answers to the decedent’s family and by providing scientific evidence to medical examiners, coroners, and law enforcement officers while they are solving the case. Each case is unique, and all require an eye for detail. A forensic anthropologist is one of the last persons who can “speak for the dead.”
The paths to becoming a forensic anthropologist may be somewhat varied, but a typical educational background is as follows:
- 4 years for a bachelor’s degree (BA or BS): Usually this degree is in anthropology or biology with a human emphasis, with additional courses in biology, geology, physics, chemistry, statistics, anatomy, and osteology, among others. An undergraduate major in anthropology includes the subfields of archaeology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology, and sometimes also linguistics.
- 2-4 years for a master’s degree (MA or MS): The master’s degrees of most forensic anthropologists are in anthropology with a focus on physical anthropology (or the degree may actually be titled as physical anthropology). These programs commonly require the student to complete a written thesis based upon original independent research in the field. Students should align themselves with graduate programs that offer participation in forensic anthropology casework while still in graduate school. There are a few individuals who practice forensic anthropology with a master’s degree, but the standard is a doctoral degree, followed by American Board of Forensic Anthropology certification.
- 3-7 years for a doctoral degree (PhD): Most physical anthropology doctoral programs are highly competitive. These programs require several years of coursework in physical anthropology along with a written dissertation based upon original independent research in the field. Again, students should seek programs with a focus on forensic anthropology and practicing forensic anthropologists on the faculty (preferably those who are ABFA-certified). Coursework taken for the master’s degree may be counted toward the doctoral degree, depending on the relevant university and/or program requirements; some programs accept students directly into a doctoral program without first obtaining a master’s degree.
- Certification: Currently, the certification for post-doctoral forensic anthropologists is through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), which confirms those who are experts in the field. For ABFA board certification, it is necessary to have earned a PhD, and then—during a minimum of a three-year post-PhD interval—demonstrate practical experience as judged by case reports and a curriculum vitae that are submitted for review. Once a person has been approved to take the exam, he or she must then sit for an exam that is composed of both written and hands-on practical portions administered over the course of approximately eight hours. To date, just over 100 people have been board certified by the ABFA since its incorporation in 1977. Forensic anthropologists do not have to be board certified to perform casework, but this certification is highly recommended at some point in their career. For some jobs, such as those in accredited medical examiner offices, board certification may be required.
- Additionally, like all scientists, forensic anthropologists must remain current in their field through continuing education activities. This includes reviewing new methods in professional journals and attending conferences and workshops.
Note: if you are interested in applying for board certification, please click on the link on the ABFA website.
Critical thinking and the use of sound logic are natural aspects of good science, in general, and forensic anthropology is no exception. Forensic anthropologists should possess good analytical skills, critical thinking abilities, and logical reasoning. They need to have good mathematical skills, attention to detail, and what might be called “3-D imagination,” in order to visualize the reconstruction of a shattered skull or to understand how the forces in trauma affect bone. Excellent written and verbal communication and computer skills are also critical. Beyond writing a master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, a forensic anthropologist has to write forensic reports and design and complete research projects. Many have also written books and book chapters. They must be well-spoken, particularly on the witness stand.
Forensic anthropologists must be able to be objective, just like other forensic scientists—this means they cannot get “too involved” in their work or too focused on “getting the bad guy.” Their job is to remain impartial and to speak for the dead, who can no longer speak for themselves. They are neither judge nor jury, nor are they the police. They do not interview witnesses and most do not typically speak with family members (although those employed full-time at coroner and medical examiner’s offices may more frequently speak directly with family members). Forensic anthropologists are scientists whose job is to analyze human remains in as detached a way as possible so that they do not let their emotions, preconceived notions, or biases color their judgment. If they let their feelings get in the way, then they are not doing the best job they can do for the deceased or for society.
Forensic anthropology is not as it is portrayed in television programs like “Bones” or “CSI”-type programs; it involves a lot of reading, research, and hard work. A student must do very well in his or her undergraduate classes in order to be accepted into a forensic anthropology graduate program. Interested students should participate in archaeological field schools and will need to be able to write well and conduct quality research.
Students often ask about volunteering or shadowing a forensic anthropologist. Volunteer work opportunities are generally rare, in part because forensic cases, by definition, require confidentiality. The agency in charge of the case usually determines whether or not volunteers may participate in a case, and usually those opportunities are limited to graduate students or highly-qualified undergraduate students who are studying with a practicing forensic anthropologist.
No, and frankly, most professionals would consider that question a bit insulting. There are “on-line” courses and the like, and there are people who take a week-long overview course and then try to call themselves “forensic anthropologists,” but they are never taken seriously by law enforcement or the courts. There are some anthropologists with very little training in forensics who attempt to do casework, but that is a potentially dangerous and unethical situation given that the stakes are so high when dealing with legal issues. There are some forensic anthropologists practicing with a master’s degree, but their opportunities in the field can be quite limited, and at present, they cannot apply for ABFA board certification.
Students interested in a career in forensic anthropology have to know how to write very well, be avid readers, meticulous, and curious about science and the world. They have to know how to state only what the evidence tells them and not to get carried away with stories about a case that may not be supported by the evidence. They need a strong ethical foundation because assisting in legal matters holds people to a very high standard. Interested students also need patience and diligence, since it takes a long time and much education to become a forensic anthropologist.
There are very few jobs in forensic anthropology. Therefore, most forensic anthropologists must do something else to make a living. The majority of forensic anthropologists are full-time college or university professors who engage in forensic casework as part of their professional and community responsibilities. Teaching and having a part-time consulting practice in forensic anthropology merges many of the things many forensic anthropologists enjoy doing (engaging with students, being a scientist, studying history, writing, doing field work and research, and interacting with other professionals, for example, in medicine and law).
The field has been changing over time, however. Increasingly, forensic anthropologists are employed in a variety of governmental capacities including coroner and medical examiner’s offices, federal or state governmental agencies, and the U.S. Department of Defense, but these positions are still fairly rare. Some forensic anthropologists hold positions in museums and private enterprises, including some who have their own consulting businesses (mostly on a part-time basis, while holding some other position). On occasion, forensic anthropologists work with humanitarian organizations, either inside the country in mass disaster operations—like after the 9/11 disaster or airplane crashes—or outside the country investigating human rights violations, such as in Bosnia and Guatemala. Sometimes these experiences cover an extended period of time, but other times this is very temporary work until the remains of the victims have been analyzed.
Yes! It’s a rewarding career where you get to make a real difference. With regard to forensic anthropology, however—and forensic science, in general—interested students must keep in mind, that in those fields “forensic” is the adjective that modifies the terms “anthropology” and “science.” Just as forensic scientists must first be good scientists, forensic anthropology requires an in-depth study of the science of anthropology before focusing on forensics. Forensic anthropology is a very limited and competitive field, so interested students should do their best in their classes, especially science and math, in order to be considered for openings in college and university-level academic programs. If they take the necessary coursework and take advantage of all opportunities to learn more about the field (particularly opportunities to participate in hands-on field and lab work), interested high school students may someday reach their goals in fascinating careers in forensic anthropology that aid both the living and the dead.
Forensic anthropologists tend to find satisfaction doing casework, or they quit doing it. What most enjoy about the field is that each case provides its own puzzle of sorts, and cases are quite varied. Analyzing skeletal remains can provide clues to resolving mysteries, including the identities of an unknown victims and perhaps how they died. However, with this responsibility comes being a witness to terrible tragedies and horrific crimes, which can be very difficult. Forensic anthropologists need to be able to remain objective and remember that their inner strengths, talents, and expertise enable them to do work that few other people can do. Many forensic anthropologists also enjoy teaching, which includes serving as university professors, mentors to students and trainees, and educating jurors when on the witness stand. Most find additional satisfaction in conducting scientific research and presenting it to others in such forms as oral presentations at conferences, journal articles, and books. These research endeavors help forensic anthropologists to advance their field.
Many forensic anthropologists agree that the most rewarding part of the job is being able to provide solid information that gives leads to the coroners, medical examiners, and law enforcement officers investigating a forensic case. This information may point to the decedent’s identity and can aid in determining the circumstances surrounding death. The knowledge of forensic anthropologists can provide valuable and potentially revolutionary clues to law enforcement and the medical examiner or coroner, but it can also provide much needed answers for desperate loved ones of the decedent. The “eureka” moment when a forensic anthropologist figures out what happened to a victim at or around the time of death is a feeling that is hard to beat.
All forensic anthropologists enjoy working with the human skeleton. A fascinating thing about anatomy is that although bones are basically the same from person to person, some bones have variations or unique features because of genetics or from things that have happened during a person’s lifetime. If that was not the case, and all skeletons were exactly alike, forensic anthropologists couldn’t do what they do. Fractures, genetic anomalies, and life-history events—like pregnancy or weight lifting—all of these things leave specific marks on the skeleton. Because forensic anthropologists are skilled and knowledgeable in reading those clues, they can interpret the evidence to help identify the individual. That is truly remarkable and rewarding.
The worst part of forensic anthropology is the inescapable knowledge of the violence that people inflict on each other; this is particularly difficult when that brutality is directed against children. Witnessing the aftermath of terrible mass disasters can be very disturbing, such as working with victims of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or a plane crash. Mass killings, such as political or religious genocides, involve innocent victims who were murdered; anthropologists are often involved in recovering victims and investigating deaths from genocides. When unknown persons remain unidentified despite the hard work of forensic anthropologists and others, it can be haunting. Although it is important to try to do so, it is often difficult for forensic anthropologists to separate or insulate themselves from the human parts of the work. The subjects forensic anthropologists analyze scientifically are real people with families and friends who care about them, and some of those victims died in terrible ways. Forensic anthropologists require good personal support systems to keep them balanced. In fact, mental health counselors are often available to assist forensic scientists, especially at mass disaster settings.
The jobs of forensic anthropologists are not only mentally challenging, they can also be physically demanding. In the morgue, anthropologists may stand on their feet for hours at a time. In the field, they may need to walk or hike for miles or climb hillsides or mountains while searching large areas for scattered remains. Forensic anthropologists may also need to spend long hours on hands and knees digging in the ground. These tasks take place during all sorts of weather, which can also be challenging. Oftentimes the work is extremely unpleasant to the senses of sight and smell, and spending long periods of time dressed in personal protective clothing, such as gloves, masks, or face shields can be physically uncomfortable. In other practical terms, a difficult part of the job is the unpredictability it can present. Many forensic anthropologists have long periods of time with no cases at all, and then several cases will arrive in a week—perhaps several of which require extensive cleaning prior to analysis. This unpredictability means that everything else has to be shuffled to accommodate the casework. If a mass-disaster setting presents itself, multiple forensic anthropologists may be called upon to essentially drop everything else, travel to the location, and spend days or weeks working with remains.
The real payback for any job in forensic anthropology is the satisfaction of helping solve a case, whether that means understanding what happened to a person at the end of his or her life or figuring out a victim’s identity. Financially, however, the annual salary for a forensic anthropologist varies greatly with his or her position, experience, and locale. Since many forensic anthropologists are college professors, their salaries vary from approximately $40,000 to $90,000 based on the size of their college/university, their number of years of experience, and the cost of living in the geographic area. Keep in mind that this salary is primarily for their teaching and research responsibilities, most of which occur over nine months of instruction per year. Some forensic anthropologists donate their services to law enforcement; others receive payment and put it in an account at their educational institution, where they may draw funds for continuing education, equipment, and other needs related to their practice. Still others have private practices and are able to keep their consulting fees. Consulting fees are negotiated between the professional forensic anthropologist and the client, and include everything from pro bono work (meaning the anthropologist donates her/his time) to over $400.00 per hour; sometimes anthropologists charge a flat rate for each case. Keep in mind, however, that involvement in casework can be very sporadic, and even at that hourly pay rate, if a forensic anthropologist only has a handful of cases per year, this is typically not a significant source of annual income. Also, if an anthropologist works in a small jurisdiction, some agencies will not be able to afford an hourly rate of $400.00 per hour; because of that financial limitation, they may either forgo a forensic anthropology assessment or may try to hire someone who is less qualified but who will work for less.
The relatively small number of forensic anthropologists whose employment is in full-time casework typically work for governmental agencies at the local, state or federal level. Their salaries range from approximately $50,000 to $150,000, depending on educational level, experience, and geographic area. Most of these anthropologists cannot take casework outside of their employment setting and do not earn additional consulting fees. Further, they typically work a 40-hour week, minimum, year-round (except for vacation days), and are likely “on call” for cases whenever they arise. Regardless of employment setting, however, most forensic anthropologists are able to earn some degree of supplemental income from sources such as public lectures and other teaching, or writing books. These additional sources of income are sporadic and vary in amount, depending on the project.
Most forensic anthropologists primarily work in their own state or country. However, some work with groups such as Doctors Without Borders or the United Nations, primarily investigating human rights abuse cases (most involving mass graves) in places such as Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Argentina, and others. Some forensic anthropologists also regularly participate in the examination of archaeological remains from such places as Mexico, Belize, and Peru, often with their students. A significant number of U.S. forensic anthropologists work for the Department of Defense, investigating sites where U.S. military service members have lost their lives and recovering remains from those locations. These anthropologists spend a substantial amount of time each year traveling to places such as Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, and Europe for these search and recovery missions. Even if they don’t work in exotic locations, most forensic anthropologists have worked in unusual settings, such as recovering remains from caves, ravines, rivers, burned buildings, crawl spaces, and attics.
Television has both hurt and helped the field of study. Since those shows have emerged, some jurors tend to believe that they are educated regarding the procedures of forensic casework from watching these programs. Sometimes jurors also tend to disbelieve forensic experts if their opinions on the witness stand are not consistent with what the jurors have gained from watching their favorite forensic television characters. In some ways, these shows have given the general public a fantasy view of the job of a forensic anthropologist and an unrealistic view of how “glamorous” the work is. Forensic anthropologists do not develop a biological profile in 30 seconds, they do not solve cases in one hour, they do not solve cases alone (they work with other experts), and they do not have access to all of the fantastic equipment used by their favorite TV characters. Some aspiring forensic anthropology students also believe that the shows are realistic, and they enter into their studies with misconceptions. Among the most common misperceptions are that forensic anthropology is a “clean” science, filled with fighting bad guys, interviewing witnesses, and proving the merits of the entire case. Most people don’t realize that a lot of the work is tedious, exacting, messy, and smells bad, and that we almost never have contact with the witnesses, suspects, or family members. With that said, these shows have introduced forensic anthropology—and forensic science in general—to the general public and created greater interest in the field. This increased interest has prompted more individuals to seek out careers in forensic anthropology and—somewhat due to that increased interest—academic programs can have their choice of a bigger pool of better-qualified applicants.